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Jim O'Brien: Shining light on the place names that give so much insight into our history

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The Field Names of County Louth

The Field Names of County Louth

The Field Names of County Louth

Regular readers of my scribblings will be familiar with the fascination I have for place names. Occasionally letters, documents and books on the topic will arrive in the post. Such arrivals are as welcome as the flowers in May.

One of the loveliest publications to land in my post box was The Field Names of County Louth, published in 2014, and sent by John McCullen, project facilitator for the Louth Field Names Project.

The initiative took the form of collaboration involving a wide range of people and organisations including the County Louth Archaeological and Historical Society, Louth County Council, Louth County Library, the Louth Leader company, private sponsors, the IFA, the farming and broader community and 154 volunteers.

The result is a most beautiful publication, a joy to behold and a delight to read.

For anyone with a passing interest in how things came to be and how the places around us were formed and christened, this book is a goldmine.

It goes beyond its brief in relation to field names to give a broad historical, social, archaeological and environmental context for the development of these names.

There is a wonderful early chapter on the history of enclosures and boundaries.

In early mediaeval Ireland there were four types of field boundaries: the stone wall or 'corae'; the trench and earthen bank known as the 'clas'; the bare fence - the 'nochtaile' or wattle fence; and the oak fence or the 'dairmhe'.

The stone walls were expected to be four feet high and three feet wide with three courses of stone. The raw materials available in the immediate vicinity often determined the fencing.

The names designating types of field were generally associated with the purpose for which the land was used. 'Gort' refers to a tilled field, 'faiche' or 'pairc' to open ground and grazing, while 'cluain' refers to meadow and grazing ground.

I always wondered where the name 'haggard' came from. I knew it wasn't an Irish word, but I thought perhaps it might be Anglo-Saxon. This book enlightened me.

It is a Norse word 'heygarthr' from the Norse 'hey' for hay and 'garth' for enclosure. The haggard was the place where the haybarn was located; the corn reek was built where many a match was made, a blow struck and a kiss stolen.

The practice of enclosing fields came about with the decline of the feudal system. By the late 17th century laws were passed in relation to land enclosure. An Act of Parliament in 1697 compelled landowners to erect permanent fences between their properties.

The importance of boundaries is illustrated by one of the contributors, Declan Breathnach, who recalls his father referring to the significance of a stream called Hoey's Stream on the Louth-Monaghan border.

The water course not only divides two land holdings, it divides the townland of Drumcah from Drumass, the parish of Knockbridge from Iniskeen, the county of Louth from Monaghan, the Archdiocese of Armagh from the diocese of Clogher and the province of Leinster from Ulster.

Siege

The book methodically goes through the things that inspired the various place names, including the natural features, the built environment along with farming and commercial pursuits common to an area.

An example is a field in Tullyallen known as the Gealadh Mór that got its name in the days when it was used for drying flax.

And of course many field names are like pages from a history book.

A plot of high ground at Bryanstown outside Drogheda is called Cromwell's Mount, where Oliver Cromwell mounted his siege guns during the vicious siege of 1648.

In Ballymascanlon a place called Reilly's Field is said to contain the spot where Edward Bruce was killed by a spy.

The Hanging Field at Bellurgan beside the Dundalk-Carlingford Road is where a certain James Wolfe McNeale is said to have left corpses hanging.

I could go on for pages. This lovely book could be produced in every county. In fact a similar publication in Meath preceded the Louth version.

The funding was provided mainly by the local Leader company, complemented by other public and private resources.

The material sources included the Ordnance Survey, local historical maps, the school folklore collection and, fascinatingly, the Department of Agriculture records from the fertiliser scheme of the 1950s and '60s.

Field names were used in the register to record the amount fertiliser spread and the date of spreading. Bureaucracy has its uses.

This book is a gem, the like of which every county should have.

Indo Farming